Rock 'n' roll is in the hot seat again.
Call it media hype or justifiable outrage, but an acrimonious debate is raging over whether hard-rock heavyweights Guns N' Roses--as well as rap idols Public Enemy and speed-metal kings Slayer--are promoting bigotry and hatred.
Guns N' Roses has been under fire for a host of inflammatory lyrics in its song "One in a Million," which uses derogatory epithets to describe blacks and gays. The furor has continued, largely fueled by a Rolling Stone cover story in August. In that article, Guns N' Roses leader Axl Rose deepened the debate by stating: "Why can black people go up to each other and (use racial epithets), but when a white guy does it, all of a sudden it's a big put-down?"
Since then, rock and racism has become a hot story, with Guns N' Roses smack in the bull's-eye:
* A host of media outlets, from the "Today" show to the New York Times, have spotlighted heated reactions to the group's allegedly racist and anti-homosexual lyrics.
* Interviewing Boy George on his talk show, host Arsenio Hall blasted Rose as an "ignorant racist."
* In a letter to the New York Times, actor Sean Penn admiringly defended "One in a Million," comparing it to a Robert Capa war photo, labeling criticism of the band "pseudo-liberal hogwash."
* Parents Music Resource Center founder Tipper Gore also joined the debate, criticizing Guns N' Roses on "Entertainment Tonight" and, in a letter to the New York Times last Sunday, sounding the call for more "concern" and "outrage" about "troubling messages marketed to children through popular music."
In a full-page ad in Hollywood trade papers late last month, the Simon Wiesenthal Center asked the music industry: "Have we, as a nation, grown so apathetic about the racial, religious and sexual bias that is beginning to permeate our society? . . . Isn't it about time (the music industry) takes a firm stand against the immoral spread of hatred and bigotry?"
It's hard to believe that the Rolling Stones outraged parents and TV programmers two decades ago by singing "Let's Spend the Night Together." But now the Shock Rock mantle has been passed to Guns N' Roses, whose "One in a Million" offers a far more graphic--and vulgar--sketch of modern life. The song portrays a small-town boy's first fearful glimpse of grimy, downtown Los Angeles and uses scabrous, streetwise language--unsuitable for publication in this newspaper--replete with slurs against blacks, gays and immigrants.
The rock ballad attracted some initial media scrutiny when it was released late last year. But it didn't emerge as a cause celebre until a commentary published in the Village Voice in late August took the press to task for criticizing Public Enemy for anti-Semitic remarks by one of its members without expressing similar outrage over Rose's lyrics.
(Earlier this year, Prof. Griff, known as Public Enemy's Minister of Information, gave a much-publicized interview claiming that Jews were behind "a majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe." Though the group fired Griff, he was eventually reinstated, even though he refused to retract his remarks; in his most recent interview, he called his statements "100% pure.")
Defending his song in Rolling Stone, Axl Rose said he used a racial epithet because "it's a word to describe somebody that is basically a pain in your life, a problem. There's a rap group, N.W.A. . . . I mean, they're proud of that word. . . . I've had some very bad experiences with homosexuals. (But am I) anti-homosexual? I'm not against them doing what they do as long as they're not forcing it upon me."
Rose would not comment further, but his management firm issued a statement saying: "Guns N' Roses do not base their career on bigotry. . . . It is an artist's right to comment with honesty on both the beautiful and the ugly."
Are such racial epithets fair game because blacks use them too? Not at all, says Arsenio Hall.
"I never do--ever. And Guns N' Roses' attitude points out the very danger in using it. Because ignorant white people like Axl Rose are going to get the idea that's it's OK to use it too. The difference is very clear. N.W.A uses it in a figurative way, whereas Guns N' Roses uses it in a negative, derogatory way--as a white slavemaster would use it.
"There are rules of the turf. . . . I met several members of Guns N' Roses during the MTV Awards, and they seemed nice and decent. But Axl never said a word to me. And if we ever talk, I'll tell him another rule of the street. If you use that kind of language, you get your (rear-end) whipped. And I hope someone whips his (rear end) so he knows it's a mistake."
One thing is obvious--the debate over ethnic slurs has touched a raw nerve.
When rap producer Rick Rubin, who is white and Jewish, refused to condemn Public Enemy out of hand earlier this year, the extremist Jewish Defense Organization blasted him as "self-hating Jewish trash" and "a coward." Public Enemy leader Chuck D., upset over media coverage of his group's association with Prof. Griff, angrily phoned one New York writer and threatened to "take care of you" if he didn't stop writing about the controversy.
Many critics also worry that the inflammatory stance of bands like Public Enemy and Guns N' Roses may have a big impact on the racial attitudes of their youthful fans. Juan Williams, a Washington Post writer and author of "Eyes on the Prize," a history of the civil rights movement, has spent a considerable time lecturing at college campuses in recent years. He said he has found "an intense new level of anger and animosity" among U.S. youth.
"I can't tell you how stunned I am by how comfortable young Americans are with racism in all its forms," he said. "There's a new segregation out there. People who are rich stay together. People who are black, white, Jewish, middle-class--everyone has an intense need for group identification. And they don't want to know about other people outside of their circle.
"They're all putting themselves in jail cells. Each group looks out on the world and demeans anyone outside of their group. In the '60s, it was hip to know a black dude from the ghetto or a lesbian chick or a white longhair. Now they don't want to be bothered.
"Everyone has very volatile, strongly held attitudes--and you can't help but see some of that coming from their music. Kids put so much of their identity into their favorite groups that what the groups have to say takes on enormous significance."
How much rope should rock musicians get before they hang themselves? Shouldn't rock performers receive the same artistic protection as writers or film makers, no matter how crude or racist their lyrics?
"I believe in freedom of speech, which gives artists the right to say what they believe, whether you happen to agree with them or not," said Rubin, head of Def-America Records and former co-owner of Def Jam Records, Public Enemy's record label. "Throughout history, art has always reflected culture. That's what good art does. It tells us what's going on. Kids aren't going to start (using racial epithets) just because they heard Axl say them. He only sets kids off because he's talking about something they already learned at home.
"I think the reason you're seeing rock 'n' roll taking so much heat is that people aren't willing to face up to the real problems in our society, so they find it convenient to blame them on rock. Listening to a record can't make a kid commit suicide or become a racist."
Pop-performance artist Laurie Anderson is concerned by the heated emotions aroused by provocative art, whether it's perceived as being racist or erotic. "It's staggering what kind of buttons this issue pushes," she said. "I think the problem is that people aren't sure what they expect art to be. They want it to be beautiful and entertaining, but when it's scary to them--as Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs are--then it gets to be an entirely different issue.
"It's certainly a problem with pop music, because it's clearly the most emotional art form. It moves you in a very direct way--it's a true propaganda tool. Once you fall in love with a pop melody, you're hooked. You can discover that the lyrics are obscene or offensive, but it's too late--the song is already inside you."
Pop defenders are particularly incensed with Tipper Gore's attacks on rock lyrics, saying the PMRC founder confuses an examination of controversial subject matter with an endorsement of it. Gore has blasted the metal band Slayer for performing songs glorifying Nazism, a charge the group has heatedly denied.
"There are lots of people who study Nazism, but that doesn't make them Nazis," said Rubin, a self-proclaimed "pro-Jewish Defense League guy" who signed Slayer to his record label. "They're fascinated by power, so they're intrigued by Nazism's obsession with power. Their song is a horror story. It's like the episode of 'The Twilight Zone' movie that was about Nazis. But I don't see anyone claiming that movie promoted Nazism."
Still, don't rock heroes have an enormous emotional impact on impressionable youth? If fans mimic rock-star hairdos and fashions, couldn't they be just as influenced by their racial or political attitudes? Isn't that why groups like Amnesty International avidly recruit superstars like Sting and Bruce Springsteen to draw attention to their cause?
"I think inflammatory lyrics have a tremendous impact on kids, especially because they're at an age when they're alienated from their parents and are putting a lot of emotional belief into these pop heroes," said Juan Williams. "What's important is that we have to face up to what spawns these attitudes, instead of trying to censor or legislate them away."
Many rock observers insist that the worst solution is to call attention to every questionable batch of lyrics, which simply increases young fans' curiosity. Whenever MTV bans a sexist or vulgar rock video, the bands' publicists hurriedly contact the media, eager to have the incident publicized. The reason is simple enough--in rock 'n' roll, controversy sells records.
Rick Rubin insists that bands like Public Enemy have simply used their militant political image as a publicity tool. "I don't think someone like Prof. Griff has any more impact on Public Enemy fans than some racist nut you'd see on 'The Morton Downey Show,' " he said. "They both just look like idiots. I don't see why we should take him any more seriously than any other late-night TV kook.
"Public Enemy doesn't really believe in politics. It's just an interesting angle--and everyone bought it. It's all entertainment. I hear the FBI is upset because of N.W.A's song, '---- Tha Police.' Come on! Cops get killed in Hollywood movies all the time. Are they going to stop the studios from making movies where cops happen to get blown away? No one sees that as a political statement. It's the same with rap--it's just entertainment. Public Enemy says 'don't believe the hype,' but they're into hype as much as anyone else."
But most rock fans aren't as sophisticated as Rubin. And if they swallow clever advertising slogans and celebrity publicity campaigns, why wouldn't they buy their pop heroes' racist or anti-Semitic sentiments?
"I admire (Public Enemy leader) Chuck D.'s poetry about racism in our society," said Arsenio Hall. "But it's equally important to denounce Prof. Griff's racist remarks too, because racism can come in all colors, whether its face is white or black."
Pop music's defenders believe that a democratic society should be secure enough to survive disharmony sowed by inflammatory or racist lyrics.
"Art reflects our culture--and it also predicts and projects where we're going," said Laurie Anderson. "Sometimes that can be very inspiring. Sometimes it can be scary and disgusting. But what I find scary are people who react to the problems we have in society by blaming them all on pop songs."